Penelope Barcelo is the person we turn to at Kepler's when we need a recommendation for a new cookbook, or a good restaurant, or a truly luscious and dependable recipe. If we are particularly lucky, we will be there on a day when she brings in a pan of heavenly lemon bars, delicate and perfect macaroons, or an absolutely stunning, elegantly iced chocolate cake.
She has attended culinary school, worked in professional kitchens, and occasionally contributes to a food and cooking blog. She is also a passionate believer in children's literature and an all-around warm and wonderful person. I am delighted to share this brief interview with Penelope. Enjoy her recommendations and be sure to try her delicious recipe. And the next time you're in the store, feel free to say hello!
Q. What are three essential cookbooks that everyone should have on their shelf?
A. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is absolutely amazing - everyone should have a Bittman book in their library. He is not only a great cook, but also an incredible teacher who knows how to talk and inspire the home cook.
When Alice Waters released The Art of Simple Food, she definitely changed the game and really got people thinking about and supporting their local food movement. I always open my copy up when I'm in a bind.
Although I haven't been a member of this club for a while, local food hero Heidi Swanson opened a super natural world with Super Natural Cooking. She is the lovely woman behind the blog "101 Cookbooks," a vegetarian friendly journal that aims to get everyone excited about whole foods. It is not only exciting but delicious - I often turn to this one.
Q. Are there any new cookbooks that stand out to you? Why?
A. Chad Robertson has unleashed the fervent baker in me with Tartine Bread. I have been talking non-stop about this book since it hit the shelves. What Alice Waters did with locally sourced ingredients I believe Robertson has already done with bread. Every good meal begins with a truly magnificent loaf of bread that anyone can learn to make.
Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan is tops, and I am going to go right ahead and say that Ms. Greenspan is THE modern day Julia Child. Like Julia she has made French comfort cooking effortless. It will be getting a lot of use this holiday season.
David Tanis blew me away with his Platter of Figs, but most recently with his newly released Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys. I loved reading each memory associated with a particular recipe and he most reflects how I cook. I read this one cover to cover; it's beautifully written.
NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine is stunning. Chef Rene Redzepi is sure to inspire a whole generation of new chefs and cooks. Although this particular book isn't exactly kitchen friendly due to the use of ingredients local to Nordic countries, I cannot stop flipping through this book. If anything, it will make you want to get out and forage for your own NOMA.
Q. You take such great pleasure in the beauty of food and the culture of its creation, as well as the cooking of it... Do you have any recommendations for books about food?
A. MFK Fisher's How To Cook a Wolf is the Bird by Bird of food and culinary essay. My mother gave me her copy very early and it has never left me. Ms. Fisher wrote about food in a time when ingredients were scarce. She was the first creative and improvisational cook.
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant by Jenni Ferrari-Adleris a collection of short stories, a delicious mishmash of some great food writers. It is not only a tribute to food but the act of preparing and savoring it alone. It is hilarious and comforting at the same time. If you find yourself staring into the contents of a bleak pantry and a bare fridge (maybe some herbs and block of cheese), then this one is for you!
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee is indispensable and always at hand in my kitchen. I have read this cover to cover a number of times and it was my tool box in a book in culinary school.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen by Molly Wizenberg. I have been following her now legendary blog, Orangette, since it's conception and firmly believe that she is my other, at least when it comes to matters in the kitchen. Stories filled with heart, prose, and recipes to savor and linger over.
Q. Can you share a favorite cooking memory?
A. I have too many. One that I look back on involves a very simple sandwich and a hitchhiking attempt gone right. My family and I were just outside of Barcelona visiting relatives when my older brother and I decided to go into the city for the day. We hadn't secured a ride home, so we decided to hitchhike. A lovely man named Javi ended up taking pity on us. We climbed into the back of his van and to our utter amazement we found every type of Jamón (Spanish dry-cured ham) hanging from the ceiling. A bit eerie and unsettling to the lost tourist, but to us a most delicious happenstance. About midway through our trip he pulled over and opened the back to retrieve a very long, very thin paring knife. He slid the knife across the jamón as if it had been a pat of butter, each slice falling atop a small loaf of bread that we later learned his wife had baked. He generously buttered both sides of the bread and handed each of us a sandwich. I am sure my brother shed a tear or two. It was not only one of the most delicious and simplest of things but an incredible act of kindness. We have never forgotten Javi and his Jamón sandwich.
Q. Can you share a favorite recipe?
A. There was a small rotisserie called Mistral in the Ferry Building. It was a place where happiness took shape in the form of French comfort food. My family and I would often make the trip up to San Francisco every Sunday to have a lazy lunch by the water, but one day, to our horror, the windows were papered up. My mother gave a fairly good pout, and we're still not over the closing, but the meals we shared there live on. This recipe is inspired by one of the many side dishes we would feast on - accompanied by an Acme baguette.
Patate Douce aux Provencal (Roasted Sweet Potatoes aux Provencal)
1 medium or 3 small sweet potatoes (I had the small on hand and was able to slice them into about 1/2 inch circles, but if you have a bigger one, slice the sweet potato in half from top to bottom and do a half moons instead - keeping the width to 1/2 inch)
Extra virgin olive oil for coating
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 teaspoons of raw sugar (or whatever type you have on hand)
1-2 teaspoons of herbs de Provence
Note: herbs de Provence is a staple in the south of France, usually a blend of rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf, thyme and lavender. A little goes a very long way.
Note: Even though sweet potatoes are naturally sweet, the sugar helps bring their flavor out just a little more.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
On a large baking sheet or large ovenware dish, toss the sweet potatoes in olive oil, making sure they're well coated. Spread the potatoes, making sure they are flat and facing up - they will cook more evenly. Season with salt, pepper, sugar and herbs.
Bake the potatoes for about 20 minutes--the edges should shrivel and caramelize a bit. Take your baking sheet out and flip each round, seasoning again on the other side, and place back in the oven for another 20 minutes.
Let them cool slightly. I actually enjoy these at room temperature; they're fabulous.
After working at a string of restaurants abroad, Penelope found Kepler's and discovered that she preferred cooking for a community of booksellers. When not in between the shelves, she can be found in the kitchen, enjoying a memorable meal among the company of good friends, and being a gypsy at heart, traveling when she can.